By Todd Ceisner
For the third straight year, the Bassmaster Elite Series will roll into the Ozark Mountains for a springtime tilt.
After stopping at Bull Shoals Lake the previous two Aprils, the setting this week will be massive Table Rock Lake, known as one of the top all-around bass fisheries in the nation.
Coming off their season-opening back-to-back events in Georgia and Florida, the 108 Elite pros likely won't encounter many 9- or 10-pound specimens as they did down south, although Table Rock has its share of stout fish. What they have found is a lake full of bass that are in the midst of their pre-spawn rituals.
The winter around Branson, Mo., has been as cold and as long as some locals can remember. Parts of Table Rock's feeder creeks froze over in recent months and the effects are still being felt as water temperatures in some parts of the lake continue to hover just below or at the 50-degree mark.
Practice reports indicate fish are ganged up around traditional pre-spawn staging areas and several warm days dating back to last weekend will have more fish on the move. However, post-front conditions and cooler temperatures are expected to arrive Friday after a round of thunderstorms moves across the lake on Thursday. That's when it's expected the bite could be at its best as Table Rock bass are known to let their guard down under dreary conditions.
Finding biters won't be much of a worry, but those in the legal 15-inch range and larger could be a chore for some. A shad die-off is also in full effect on the lower end of the lake, offering the fish plenty of feasting options and possibly making it tougher on the Elite Series pros opting to fish toward that way. The prevailing opinion, though, is that anywhere there is stained water, regardless of temperature, is where the boats will be, which means the White River and James River and various larger creek arms will likely see their share of boat traffic.
Whatever impact the weather may have, rest assured the fish will be biting somewhere on the lake and one of the keys this week will be having multiple confidence areas.
"One of the main keys to this lake is you're going to need to have several different areas because one area won't hold up for 3 days. There's no way," said Rick Lapoint, who operates Rick's Chauffeured Guide Service on Table Rock.
Before getting into more about the bite, here's the lowdown on the lake itself.
BassFan Lake Profile
> Lake name: Table Rock
> Type of water: Highland reservoir on the White River
> Surface acres: 43,100 at full pool
> Primary structure/cover: Chunk rock, bluff banks, standing timber, boat docks, flooded brush
> Primary forage: Crawfish and threadfin shad
> Average depth: Roughly 70 feet
> Species: Largemouths, spotted bass, smallmouths
> Minimum length: 15 inches (on all three)
> Reputation: Great lake with big fish of all species, but they're greatly affected by weather
> Weather: Thunderstorms will hit the area Thursday, making way for cooler, post-front conditions Friday and Saturday.
> Water temp: High 40s on lower end, low to mid 50s in creeks
> Water visibility/color: 2 to 3 feet in rivers and creeks, 8 to 10 feet on main lake
> Water level: Normal pool
> Fish in: 5 to 15 feet
> Fish phase: Pre-spawn
> Primary patterns: Wiggle Warts, flipping, jerkbaits, crankbaits, dropshots, tubes, jigs, Carolina-rigs, worms
> Winning weight: 66 pounds
> Check weight (Top 50 after 2 days): 25 pounds
> Cut weight (Top 12 after 3 days): 42 pounds
> Fishing quality (1=poor, 5=great): 3 for Table Rock
> Biggest factors: Having multiple reliable areas/patterns. Fishing's good all over the lake, but it'll take more than one honey hole to win this week.
> Biggest decision: Whether to fill up on spotted bass first and go after kicker largemouth or just target largemouths. The latter could be a gamble with the current conditions.
> Wildcard: Deeper pre-spawners. Finding some groups of fish that haven't started their move could result in some decent results. Locating those schools can be tough, though.
Randy Howell says the shallow crankbait bite is hot right now, but quality keepers have been hard to come by.
Just about everywhere either tour has gone so far this year, the fish have been well behind their normal seasonal patterns and Table Rock appears to be an extreme case. Some pros feel the fish are a month or possibly more behind in their typical habits for early April.
"It's been the coldest winter I've seen in 20 years," Lapoint said.
That means a slew of fish are still out in deeper water, waiting for the water temperature to climb a few degrees before shifting into pre-spawn mode. There are groups, however, in the intermediate depths waiting for that next bump in water temps before pushing into shallower water. That warm up could occur in part this week, but could also be stunted by some cooler nights during the tournament.
"The fish are in a heavy staging pattern getting ready to move in," said Lapoint. "The water temperature is still in the low 50s and high 40s in some areas so a lot of the fish are bunched up in the staging areas. When it gets warm, they move up. When it gets cold, they slide back out."
Warmer water will be concentrated mostly in the rivers, creek arms and pockets so any rain and runoff that comes into the lake will only serve to accentuate those locales.
"Most of the fish are staging between 5 and 15 feet deep right now," Lapoint added. "It's perfect for a lot of these guys. Any sort of channel swings, secondary points and creeks will be a major factor. The little pockets will start getting good, too. Any kind of spawning area – points or secondary areas leading into spawning areas – will have fish. It'll warm up fast once it warms up."
For years, the Storm Wiggle Wart crankbait has been synonymous with bass fishing on the Ozark lakes. While other hard baits can be effective, few can the match consistent production put forth by the Wiggle Wart, especially around this time of year.
Lapoint has fished the lake with Wiggle Warts for decades, but still can't put his finger on why the diminutive crankbait fools 'em more often than not.
"Everybody that comes here knows about it," he said. "It's just the way it suspends and the way fish react to it. Everybody's got to have them when you're fishing at Table Rock. They'll bite other crankbaits, but that Wiggle Wart has the right deal for these fish in the Ozarks. I don't know what it is about them, but if you don't have them you're missing the boat."
Noted Elite Series pro Jamie Horton, "The Wiggle Wart will get down to those fish in the 8-foot range. It gets fairly deep for a small-bodied crankbait."
Horton said a Wiggle Wart in a brown or red crawdad pattern, either custom or stock, will catch fish.
"They'll bite other stuff, but that one is just so good here," he said.
Notes from the Field
Following are practice notes from a few of the anglers who'll be competing this week.
"It's so easy to catch fish and there are so many fish. If you can get in some mild colored water or around bluff banks or 45-degree banks, you can catch them cranking. It's hard to catch keepers, though. Most of the fish I've caught are 14 and 14 1/2 inches. The spots I'm catching, though, are pretty fat and the few smallies I've caught have been kind of skinny.
I'm trying to avoid the clearest water down on the lower end and have stayed up the rivers and creeks. We're supposed to get a lot of weather Thursday and I don't know what that will do to them. Maybe it'll make them bite better than they have all week, but I'm catching a lot more shorts than keepers. These fish are so healthy right now. I expect it'll take some good weight to do well here. I feel pretty good. I've been stretching out and fishing up both rivers. I'm starting to see what the fish are setting on and how to get bites. I just need to figure out how to get better bites."
"It's my favorite time of the year as far as how I like to fish and the shallow crankbait has been the best of anything I've tried. The lake is definitely behind schedule I thought it would be a little better, especially on the lower end. That part seems to be way behind. Even after a warmer day Tuesday, the water was still 49 degrees. I think they're real close. They move quick in these lakes, but I haven't seen a big move yet. We've had so much cloud cover and the clouds are keeping it from warming up quick enough.
"It's been hard to find much color in the water and that's why it's critical to have some wind, but everybody knows that. When the wind blows, it shows you how many fish are really around because you can catch them really anywhere. They bit good on Monday because it was breezy. We didn't have much wind Tuesday and it was a little slower.
Russ Lane has caught fish doing a variety of things in a number of areas of the lake and will likely stay where the warmer water is.
"I still don't have a real good deal doing. I've caught some, but I'm still trying to find a good area to catch some size. I've caught some little fish, but with the 15-inch limit, even on the spots, you'll catch some nice ones, but when you look down they don't measure."
"For me, the bigger bites are elusive. Trying to catch a kicker, anything in the 3 1/2-pound or better range has been tough. Those are the ones you'll need to get up to the 16- to 16 1/2-pound mark. I'm catching a lot of fish. I caught close to 30 on the first day of practice and a lot of keepers, too. It seems like it's easy to catch spots and smallmouth, but the largemouths are difficult.
"This is my first spring event here. I fished the Elite Series in the fall of 2006 and the EverStart Series in 2008 and it's not nearly as tough as either of those. It's fishing a lot better and you can catch fish doing a lot of different things. I just get the sense the largemouth aren't out right now. I've got a couple patterns going where I've been able to catch better quality spots and smallmouth on the main lake and largemouths up in the creeks, but that's really no secret here in the spring.
"I'm only seeing four places where you can run up a river and find some warmer water and I think those areas will get hammered on pretty good Thursday. As big as this lake is, due to the timing and current conditions, it might fish small. Thursday will be a great day to catch fish in my opinion because of the weather and you'll need to make a strong opening statement. The wind is supposed to stick around on Friday, but I think it'll slow down some before the post-frontal conditions move in."
"It's in a state I've never seen it before. I grew up fishing this lake and have fished it for many years and I've never ever seen a spring so far behind as this one. The water temp is finally getting to a point where the fish should be showing up all over the lake, but there are sections where thy haven't yet.
"It's odd. When I first started fishing, I figured it would be a month behind, but as I fished more and more of the lake it's feeling like it's 1 1/2 or 2 months behind. It's somewhat frustrating because patterns you typically run this time of year just aren't working in certain sections of the lake. The other thing is the shad died longer this year than I've ever seen them die for. The same thing happened at Beaver Lake and Grand. There's been a massive kill and when you have that, the fish get harder to catch than any condition you can imagine."
"It's hard to figure out. The fish are definitely in pre-spawn mode and I've been trying to mix it up and fish a bunch of different ways and different cover and different banks. It seems like I can get bites everywhere I go, but keepers are at a premium. It's been hard to come across groups of keepers.
"The water temperatures that I've been seeing are in the low to mid 50s, which is prime water temperature for good fishing. I'm still looking for that area where I think it's going to go down in. There are several areas that have a lot of potential and it's obvious some of the areas to be in. To be honest, it doesn't matter, you can get bites anywhere you go – the main lake, pockets, bluff walls, docks, the middle and backs of creeks. It's pretty odd, though, that you can catch so many fish, but not a lot of keepers. I'm not going to quit searching. This lake has some big fish in it. I just haven't figured it out yet."
Top 10 To Watch
With the above in mind and more, here, in no particular order, is BassFan's recommendation on the Top 10 to watch at this event:
1. Aaron Martens – His streak of six straight Top-12 cuts came to an end at the St. Johns River, but his track record in the Ozarks could help him start a new streak. He said the deep, clear water reminds him of California. He's been consistently good on Ozark lakes in the spring, including a 15th at Bull Shoals last year and a runner-up at Table Rock in 2005.
2. Greg Hackney – Since opening the season with a 75th at the Lake Okeechobee FLW Tour, his finishes have progressively improved and he's fresh off a 3rd at Sam Rayburn Reservoir. There's no reason to discount his chances this week, considering his first tour-level win came at the Rock in April '05.
Kevin VanDam is coming off his first missed 50 cut in 30 Elite Series events, but it's presumed he'll get back on track this week.
3. Mark Davis – The Arkansas veteran is off to a sizzling start and is a past winner at Table Rock in the spring (2004). He seems rejuvenated this season and with a trip to Dardanelle looming next month, he won't want to squander this great start.
4. Kevin VanDam – Saw his Top-50 streak come to an end at the St. Johns River so expect him to come out swinging in Missouri. This week's conditions should play into his power-fishing strengths.
5. David Walker – Came out of the first two events with a pair of Top-20s so his confidence is building. What's more, he loves to crank and that'll figure in big time this week.
6. Todd Faircloth – It's getting harder and harder to leave him off these lists. Only Davis is off to a better start this season and like Davis, Faircloth has a Table Rock victory to his credit, albeit from the fall of 2006.
7. Bill Lowen – Coming off a stinker (86th) at the St. Johns River, expect Lowen to zero in on a river or creek arm this week and mine it for all it's worth.
8. Tommy Biffle – If the water remains dirty, that'll play right into Biffle's hands. He's off to a slow start, but he's never one who lacks for confidence.
9. Brian Snowden – This is home for him and with conditions expected to vary day to day, he could stay one step ahead of the rest.
10. Brandon Palaniuk – Off to another dismal start, but he has proven he can strike anywhere at any time. The way the lake sets up would appear to favor his strengths.
> Anglers will launch at 6:30 a.m. CT all 4 days from Table Rock State Park (5272 State Highway 165, Branson, MO). Weigh-ins on days 1 and 2 will get under way at 3:15 p.m. at State Park Marina (380 State Park Marina Drive, Branson, MO). Weigh-ins on days 3 and 4 will be held at Branson Landing (100 Branson Landing Blvd., Branson, MO).
> Thurs., April 3 – Thunderstorms - 78°/47°
- Wind: From the S at 10 to 20 mph
> Fri., April 4 – Clear - 61°/35°
- Wind: From the WNW at 10 to 20 mph
> Sat., April 5 – Partly Cloudy - 65°/43°
- Wind: From the N at 5 to 10 mph
> Sun., April 6 – Chance of Rain - 61°/43°
- Wind: From the ESE at 10 to 15 mph
> Check out BassFan's Pro View Report to get the latest practice reports from Brent Chapman and Aaron Martens. To read it, click here.